Recent thoughts on geotagging and social media

Gareth Morgan interviewed me recently for an article about geotagging and social media in New Scientist magazine. Here is a longer version of my answers that may be of interest.

Do you see location-based social media apps appealing to users? If so, any thoughts on why?

Linking things together by place and time can be extremely powerful. American computer scientist Tom Gruber wrote an interesting blog post comment last year on the importance of attaching location and time to various objects on the Web when he said:

For example, joining person place and time across multiple sources can lead to new discoveries of what can be done, when, where, and with whom. This has exciting applications from travel (harvest the collective knowledge of interesting adventures around the world) to history of science (discover paths of influence across researchers and projects).

On the Web, geotemporal information is particularly useful for searching across a range of domains, and provides nice semantic (meaningful) linkages between things. For example, having geographic information and time information is useful e.g. for describing where people have been and when, for detailing historical events or TV shows, for timetabling and scheduling of events, and for mashing all of these things together (“I’m travelling to Edinburgh next week: show me all the TV shows of relevance and any upcoming events I should be aware of according to my interests…”).

In terms of the Social Web, I think there are similar but more powerful examples (due to the real-time nature of social media websites) regarding why adding location to social media content can be so appealing. You’re in a new city looking for restaurants within a certain geographic radius mentioned by your friends or friends of friends from the past few months. Or last minute during a night out, you’re trying to find out about some time-critical event like a performance or party and you’re trying to find out which one to go to based on where people are and what they are saying.

You’ve also got applications powered by user-generated content from the Wikipedia like DBpedia Mobile, a “location-centric DBpedia client application for mobile devices” that displays nearby Wikipedia resources (from a set of 300,000) based on a users’ geolocation as recorded through his or her mobile device. When geotagging was introduced on Twitter, one potential use mentioned was that you would receive trending topics relevant to your geographic location rather than a worldwide view. This has recently appeared, but there are many more use cases that can be imagined.

Do you think these types of services are purely for ‘fun’? What do you think of the idea of location as a platform, where a person’s location becomes a platform to add on additional services for that person? So for example, the foursquare / Metro Canada deal focuses on delivering restaurant reviews to users, but could location data be used in other ways? When looking how the Obama election campaign used social media so effectively, I wonder whether having even better detail on people’s location (and which wards they may be voting in) might be even more powerful.

Location data will be used to deliver answers to questions or perform actions based on where you are, including delivering restaurant reviews and other user-generated content items, but much more, as evidenced by the forthcoming Siri personal assistant for the iPhone [out now!]. Nova Spivack interviewed the aforementioned Tom Gruber about Siri and its features recently, but also the demos of Siri give some idea of the power of combining types of content with geographic data and matching those to user requests – show me flights from here to there today, book me a movie or restaurant near here, etc. So it’s providing a nice combination of geospatially-tagged content provided by people but also by services.

There are of course lots of fun applications that use location-oriented user-generated content, but they are often gimmicky unless the data is filtered or becomes meaningful to you in some way. So, if you have an augmented reality application that is showing you tweets by anybody in a certain geographic range, that may not be particularly useful, but if you can limit those to your friends, or even better, tie them to an event that you are intending to go to or a conference you’re attending based on a #hashtag you’ve used on Twitter, or maybe some event that matches some interests in your social networking profile, then you are beginning to go beyond fun.

Regarding how this could be used by others who are looking at a mass of user-generated content and trying to generate some intelligence from that, of course there may be issues in terms of people making it easier to determine where they are based on automatic geotagging. So for electioneers, they may start “following” users based on certain keywords and their geotagged posts.

Combining your location-related context with norms on how that context should be used could be useful if a service can determine that a person works at location X and they are currently creating user-generated content near that location, then they probably shouldn’t be bothered with certain types of messages and certainly no spammy offers of CD discounts.

Over the history of the internet, there has been much talk of delivering services (adverts?) based on a person’s location. I’ve seen little appetite for that, but does location-aware social media appeal for different reasons?

There have been various studies suggesting that people don’t mind getting ads if they are relevant to their interests and to what they are doing. Advertisers will argue that having geolocation identifiers (whether via a geotag or an IP address) can be used to provide personalised communication methods with users, so that flexible and geographically-relevant products can be deployed as a result.

Bargains and deals offering financial incentives are obvious applications for location-aware social media applications. You tweet that you are in location X and if your profile mentions keywords like Web/Mac/iPhone, then you may be addressed with a tweet from the local Apple store offering you 20% off product Y. The asynchronous nature of services like Twitter means that this may be slightly-less intrusive than a direct e-mail or something appearing in your list of subscribed followees, since you have to search for people mentioning your username to get to that offer.

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